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The Inside Man

Personality is a term with many varying connotations, depending on the context of usage. It is a term that may be used to denote a celebrity (a public personality of figure), one’s character and temperament, or the way one comes across to others (he or she has a good personality). In medical and psychological parlance, however, personality is used to denote “those characteristics of a person that account for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving”; unique and enduring patterns of behavior and emotional response, which make us distinct individuals.

It seems rational to assume that one’s personality is a product of one’s upbringing and experience. We often cluck our tongues disapprovingly and say “Poor boy, with a disturbed background like that, how else would you expect him to behave” or indeed to warmly suggest, “One would expect no less from her; after all she comes from such a good family”. Psychological research seems to support these social assumptions that we regularly make. There is little doubt in the notion that our personalities are in good measure a product of our upbringing, the positive and negative experiences we have in our lives, the human interactions that influence us, and the patterns of emotional response we consequently develop.But is that all? Can every aspect of the human personality be explained on the basis of upbringing and experience? Do disturbed families yield disturbed children who may then grow up into disturbed adults only because of environment? Or are there genetic and other biological factors that influence these developments? Indeed, why do some people from very disturbed backgrounds remain stable and productive, while others from seemingly stable backgrounds display enduring disturbances in their ways of thinking, feeling and behaving? These are questions that continue to befuddle us.

Localising Mind and Brain InteractionsGiven the mind does not exist as a physical entity and is widely regarded as the software (the Brain being the hardware), it seems self evident that disturbances in brain function would have an impact on our mind (and possibly vice-versa). Surely, any affectation of these brain systems is likely to have an influence on our personality? Surely, also, our personalities are likely to result from biological imprints in our brain, imprints that lead to the very consistent patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, making us the individuals we are?Perhaps the earliest attempt to link human temperament with the brain was “Phrenology”, the study of the human skull, its characteristics, and the correlation of these with various aspects of behavior, emotion and temperament. From this time emerged also what has become an enduring tradition in clinical neurology practice; repetitive and careful observation and documentation of patients: the symptoms they described, and the signs that were manifest during the clinical examination, an approach that yielded excellent descriptions of emotions, behavior and temperament in brain disorders. Correlating these with studies of brain biology using brain scans, genetic, chemical and hormonal studies etc., and autopsy data, has improved our understanding of mind-brain interactions. The personality in neurological disorders such as epilepsy is now relatively well documented, and we are able to build models linking different brain structures with typical behavioral patterns that are observed in these disorders.

A Tale of Two PersonalitiesWhile there are several striking descriptions in the literature of personality changes associated with brain disease, the illness in which classic personality features are well described is epilepsy, providing a template to understand the neurological contributions to human personality. Epilepsy is a paroxysmal disorder that often begins in childhood or adolescence, and may continue throughout a person’s life. Epilepsy is characterised by recurrent seizures or fits, usually involving loss of consciousness, fall, jerking of the limbs, clenching of the jaws, injury (often tongue bite), and incontinence (involuntarily urination and/or defecation). Epilepsy may, however, also manifest in partial or minor forms as involuntary movements or repetitive behaviors of which the person is unaware or partially aware. The illness which begins as short circuit in normal brain activity is commonly characterised as primary or secondary generalised: primary generalised epilepsy arises from a central pacemaker in the brain and secondary generalised from a distinct part of the brain (usually a lesion or scar) later spreading to involve other parts (generalising). Distinct personality types are described in the two different forms of epilepsy: the obsessive-emotive personality of temporal lobe epilepsy and the labile-disinhibited personality of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.

The Obsessive NeuroticOne of the most striking descriptions of personality in neurology is in patients with epilepsy that arises from the temporal lobes. The temporal lobes are located on either side of the brain, roughly in the area beneath the ears and are the seat of human memory and emotion. It has been shown in a number of studies that disturbances in this region can result in striking behavioral or cognitive (memory, attention etc.) change.An American neurologist, Normal Geschwind, widely regarded as the father of behavioral neurology, described specific personality features in people with temporal lobe epilepsy. These include:

  • A tendency to write copiously (but not necessarily in a creative way) and to keep voluminous diaries (Hypergraphia)
  • A tendency to be overly religious, often in a ritualistic manner, out of keeping with the person’s family/ cultural background (Hyper-religiosity)
  • A tendency to have a decreased interest in sexual matters (Hypo-sexuality)
  • A tendency for anxiety and obsessionality; to dwell on minor matters and to experience difficulty in terminating social intercourse (emotional viscosity or stickiness)
  • An increased interest in spiritual or ideational issues in the absence of pragmatic interests
  • Turbulent emotions — irritability, agitation, anxiety, restlessness, paranoia etc.
  • Mood swings, commonly spells of depression with occasional elation
  • Psychotic and quasi-psychotic phenomena; transient hallucinations, delusional thinking etc. occurring on and off

These personality traits have been described mainly in people with chronic temporal lobe epilepsy that failed to respond to anti-epileptic drug therapy. We must remember the vast majority of people with temporal lobe epilepsy are honest, conscientious, sincere and upright members of the community they live in, these positive qualities being aided perhaps by the personality traits described. Only in a small proportion of people, usually those with severe epilepsy, do these traits become severe and/or disabling. In some way therefore, these are probably the behavioral manifestations of the pathology in the brain that most often underlies temporal lobe epilepsy, sclerosis of a part of the temporal lobe called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a small organ, no larger than a finger joint, which is the storehouse of memory and is located on either side, deep within the brain. Adjacent to it is the amygdala, a multinucleated structure that is believed to play a substantive role in human emotion. There is evolving literature that suggests a role for these structures in various disorders of the mind, schizophrenia and depression for example. One may argue that both behavioural and brain dysfunction are varying manifestations of a common underlying abnormality in brain biology. In disorders like temporal lobe epilepsy the patterns appear to be surfacing early providing the basis for enduring behaviour patterns i.e. the personality.

The Eternal AdolescentIn contrast to the person with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, the person with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME) has been described as the eternal adolescent by Dieter Janz, the legendary German neurologist who first described the condition in the 1950s. Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy is characterised by myoclonic jerks; sudden jerky spasms of the limbs, even the whole body, which might even result in objects flying out of the person’s hand. These myoclonic jerks also have potential to generalise and manifest as a full blown seizure. Further, people with JME also suffer from “absence” periods, when they appear out of touch, albeit briefly, and “photosensitivity”, the sensitivity to flashing lights, these provoking myoclonic jerks or even a seizure episode.Describing the personality of people with JME, Janz and Christian found them to be of average intellectual ability with a tendency to “promise more than they can deliver”. They went on to describe the personality of people with JME as follows. “They often appeared self assured and bragging, the girls and women coquettish, but they only act decidedly mistruthfully and are timid, frightened and inhibited. Their labile feelings of self worth lead them to be both eager to help, to invite, to give, on the one hand and to be able to act in an exaggeratedly sensitive way on the other hand. Their mood changes rapidly and frequently. This makes their contact both charming and difficult. They are easy to encourage and discourage, they are gullible and unreliable. Their suggestibility makes contacts easily but makes trust difficult. This personality profile plays along a scale from likeable nonchalance or timidity, through a psychasthenic syndrome to the extremes represented by sensitive or reckless psychopathy.”In the clinic setting, treating the person with JME can often be an exasperating experience. They seldom follow through on instructions; often break rules willfully; for example, despite knowing that lack of sleep may provoke seizures, they favour late nights. They may be irregular with their epilepsy medication to the point of recklessness. They may show disinhibition in their patterns of interaction, political correctness not being their strength. Indeed, the person with JME demonstrates many features of frontal lobe dysfunction, emphasising the importance of this part of the brain in social behavior.

From Brain Circuits to Personality TraitsThis tale of two personalities in epilepsy indicates clearly the differential role of frontal and temporal brain circuits in human personality development and change. Temporal lobe dysfunction underlies dominant obsessional neurotic personality traits and frontal lobe dysfunction, immature eternal adolescence. To assume, however, a direct impact of these brain circuits on behavioral patterns may be simplistic, as today, the brain is conceived as working in circuits (a sum of parts). However, these observations help establish a general principle that the brain has considerable impact, not only on the behavioral state of a person (current or ongoing dysfunction), but also on behavioral traits (enduring temperamental patterns).What is striking about the personality features in epilepsy is that they become established rather early in the person’s life (much like the illness, which often begins in childhood or in adolescence), and are not only personality changes consequent to progressive brain disease or brain injury as in Stroke, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. They do therefore reflect to a large extent, the natural history of personality development in the human being, and are probably a product of both brain biology and life experience.

The Inside Man!In highlighting the epilepsy example, it must be borne in mind that the severe personality changes in epilepsy are an exception rather than the norm; and are confined to a small proportion of people with difficult-to-treat epilepsy. Importantly, however, the changes in epilepsy described herein help us understand the biological underpinnings of the human personality, clarifying for us a role for nature, beyond nurture.One wonders if all personality traits have their biological imprints in the brain; that dominant personality trait patterns in each one of us merely reflect the pre-dominance of brain circuits? One may argue that both the behavioral and brain dysfunction in epilepsy are varying manifestations of a common underlying abnormality in brain biology. If that were true, then pray what role doth life experience have in shaping our personalities, you may well ask. Would not a lifetime of coping with the trials and tribulations of illness have an impact on the personality? Would the disability, physical, psychosocial and pragmatic that chronic illness confers on a person, not influence the personality, towards neurotic obsessionality or carefree adolescence? And pray, what lessons do these models have for understanding the personality of people without neurological illness? A plethora of questions assails us and begs for answers; answers that current medical and scientific knowledge do not possess.As medical technology evolves and we begin to visualise brain circuits in action, using techniques like Functional MRI, MRI Tractography and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), we expect to see the links between brain biology and human behavior unravel further. Perhaps, in time, we will all understand this “inside man (or woman)”; the personality that resides in our brains. In the interim, conditions like epilepsy are windows through which we can view the brain and mind. And view the brain and mind we must with compassion and understanding; without stigmatisation; combining science with medicine; cleverness with common sense; knowledge of medicine and the art of clinical practice; all the while thanking people with epilepsy for enhancing our understanding of the brain and mind.

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The Almighty Within

Most dictionaries describe religion as “a way of life”. Religious beliefs, practices and experiences of individuals in our society, appear to have a strong cultural basis in their evolution and have been described as part of every ancient civilisation discovered and studied by modern man. On the face of it, therefore, it seems inconceivable that religious experiences may have biological basis in our brains.Several questions remain unanswered in our quest to understand how religious experiences occur. Why are some people intense in their religious beliefs and practices and others considerably less enthusiastic? Or indeed, why do one’s religious attitudes, beliefs and practices change during a life span, progressing sometimes: from atheism to agnosia to intense religiosity (or indeed in the converse direction)? Can socio-cultural factors alone have such influence on our lives, or are there more inherent biological determinants of these experiences and behaviours? Empirical observation suggests that a simple sociocultural explanation may be inadequate. There are for example considerable differences in religious attitudes and practices between siblings born of the same set of parents. The socio-cultural ethos in this situation is a virtual constant. Yet variations in the quality, frequency and intensity of religious experiences are observed and it’s not uncommon to witness the entire spectrum, from intense religiosity to a strong atheistic tendency within the same family. While psychological experiences and social factors unique to each individual may have a significant role in determining these variations, they are often conjectures that arise from social and clinical observation.

Insights from NeuropsychiatryNeurology, psychiatry and their interface discipline neuropsychiatry provide many interesting models for the study of religiosity. Religious phenomena vary tremendously across brain and mind disorders. The religious ecstasy of the person in a bipolar mania is qualitatively different from the prophetic fervour of the person with paranoid schizophrenia. The depressed, anxious or avoidant individual is almost desperate in his pleas for religious salvation, rather different from the intense ritualism of the person with OCD or indeed the magical beliefs of the schizotypal individual. There are also variations in quality and intensity of religious experience across psychiatric disorders; for example, the acute hyper-religiosity of mania is rather different from the grumbling, slowly evolving, almost prophet-like religious fervour of the person with a schizophrenia-like illness. Are these variations in phenomenology, quality and intensity of religious experience governed by psychological and socio-cultural determinants alone? Or indeed do different brain mechanisms have a role to play in determining these variations?Neurology too has its share of religiosity models. The Geschwind syndrome is a personality syndrome that has been described in people with poorly controlled temporal lobe epilepsy. While a well defined cluster of behavioural symptoms characterise this personality type (see “The Inside Man”, The Hindu Magazinedated November 29, 2009), intense hyper-religiosity with intensified preoccupations related to moral, philosophical, religious, or ethical themes are a core feature of this syndrome (see also box on Kumagusu Minakata). Bear and Fedio (1977) provided a biological explanation for this syndrome (the sensory-limbic hyperconnection” hypothesis). They proposed that ongoing electrical activity in the temporal lobe (in the person with temporal lobe epilepsy or TLE) resulted in all sensory experience (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting etc.) being suffused with a strong emotional coloration. This resulted in relatively ordinary experiences being viewed with a certain emotional intensity by the person with TLE. Hyper-connection of critical brain structures for emotion, specifically the limbic system comprising the amygdala, hippocampus and other critical structures, was therefore thought to be the biological underpinning that determined hyper-religiosity and other personality features in TLE.

A God Module in the Brain?Perhaps the most dramatic recent description of hyper-religiosity in epilepsy is that of V.S. Ramachandran in his book “Phantoms in the Brain”. In a chapter provocatively titled “God and the Limbic System”, Ramachandran draws on his clinical experience to give the reader an evocative description of a hyper-religious patient with temporal lobe epilepsy. He describes the dramatis persona complete with religious symbols and a prophetic fervour, accompanied by a firm belief (in that individual) that his life had special meaning and his existence a special purpose for the world we live in. While Ramachandran’s subject had symptoms that were decidedly exaggerated (a caricature rather than the norm), hyper-religiosity in people with TLE evolves over time (a trait phenomenon), not just appearing suddenly (as in a state phenomenon). Ramachandran poses the interesting question “is religiosity a pre-determined biological trait”; paraphrased, this could read “is there a god module in the human brain?” Research using MRI volumetry and functional MRI (fMRI) techniques have demonstrated rather interestingly, links between structures in the limbic brain, especially the hippocampus and religiosity. Indeed, one paper that I co-authored (Wuerfel et al, 2004) demonstrated links between a small right hippocampus and hyper-religiosity in epilepsy.

Unanswered QuestionsWhile putative associations between religious experiences and the limbic system have been demonstrated, a number of questions remain unanswered.First, what exactly is normal religiosity and what is hyper-religiosity? One suspects that this in itself is subject to transcultural influences. Western studies report about a third of people surveyed as being “religious” or “very religious”. We surveyed over 500 people using a suburban railway booking counter in Chennai and found almost 70 per cent of all individuals qualified as being “religious” or “very religious”. In the Indian social context, where religious expressions and beliefs are common place, the phenomenon of hyper-religiosity can be difficult to define. For example, in our Chennai survey, when we described hyper-religiosity as being two standard deviations from the median score in our questionnaire, we found only a small proportion of people qualified. Social norms of “normal religiosity” will therefore have a significant impact on what we perceive in each culture as hyper-religiosity.Second, are religious experiences a trait or state phenomenon? It seems clear that religiosity can be both a state and trait phenomenon when observed across the spectrum of neuropsychiatric disorders. Contrary to popular perception, trait behaviours do not stop developing with the onset of adulthood and continue to evolve subtly over many years. It is conceivable that religiosity as a trait behaviour in people with neuropsychiatric disorders may exist from early on, but become very much more apparent during the course of the lifespan, periods of acute emotional distress being particularly prone for religious expression. On the other hand, hyper-religiosity may also be a pure state phenomenon, as observed in mania or acute psychotic episodes, with the person reverting to baseline levels of religious expression, post-episode. In a person without neuropsychiatric illness the religiosity trait may evolve over a lifespan, and depending on life experience may enhance or become muted. Our religiosity may also periodically achieve enhancement during times of adversity, sorrow and grief or indeed euphoria; times when we instinctively reach out to powers beyond.Third, is religiosity a natural consequence of adversity rather than a pathological process? It seems entirely plausible, when viewed from a psychological perspective, that individuals meet adversity in their lives with an increase in religious interest and or experience. Indeed, society encourages and endorses such reactive religiosity and acute emotional breakdown states are often described as spiritual experience or transformation. The flight into hyper-religiosity in the context of a neuropsychiatric disorder may well be a helpful, socially endorsed coping mechanism; spiritual excess being better accepted in society than emotional distress. Why hyper-religiosity disappears in many disorders with the resolution of neuropsychiatric symptoms, and persists in others even after their resolution, does of course beg answers.Fourth, is hyper-religiosity a pathological phenomenon? With the finding of a small right hippocampus being associated with hyper-religiosity and other descriptions of altered limbic physiology in this state, it seems conceivable that biological influences may in some way affect the development or maintenance of hyper-religiosity. Is hyper-religiosity as behaviour pathological? To decide this, one would typically have to refer to the individual’s previous background (personal and socio-cultural) in the religiosity context. Religious behaviours especially those with sudden onset and not in keeping with the person’s background may well be, from a behavioural perspective, pathological.Finally, are the changes in limbic system structure and activity identified in brain imaging of hyper-religious individuals, a cause or consequence of this behavioural predilection? Changes in limbic system structure and function are thought to accompany the longitudinal course of many neuropsychiatric disorders: epilepsy, schizophrenia and depression to name a few conditions. Clarity about what precedes (structural change or behaviour) remains elusive and the changes observed in the brain may thus be both cause and consequence, the brain being a remarkably plastic organ.

Final analysisSo is there a god module in our brain? The evidence available seems to indicate that our emotional brain, the limbic system, the hippocampus in particular, perhaps more on the right side, plays a significant role in determining the nature and quality of one’s religious experience and expression. It is very likely, the rich neuro-chemical networks that populate this region, including dopamine and serotonin, have considerable influence on our religiosity, notwithstanding the alteration of brain structure, right hippocampal atrophy. Religiosity may thus be viewed as a trait, which can undergo both physiological and pathological evolution during the course of a person’s lifetime. The nature of the underlying biological framework in an individual is likely to determine the form, quantum and nature of religious experience and expression that psychosocial adversity and emotional illness provoke. The bio-psychosocial model of mental health and illness dictates that both the physiological and pathological manifestations of this trait marker are likely to be influenced strongly by the sociocultural ethos of the individual, as well as his psychological evolution during the course of a lifespan.We must acknowledge here, the very significant role that religion and spirituality play, in helping human beings maintain optimal emotional well being or indeed achieve restoration of emotional health after a breakdown. One must also acknowledge our collective ignorance, as a society, about the biological, neuropsychiatric and psychological effects and virtues of theism, atheism and their many-splendored, much-debated, interface. Whether our religious predilections have a role in protecting and preserving or indeed enhancing our emotional state, remains thus, a matter of conjecture. The influence of this god module in our brain, “The Almighty Within”, is however probably omnipresent, just as our ancients conceived the almighty himself to be. Strange then, indeed, are his ways!

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The Godfather Paradox

Over four decades ago, Mario Puzo gave us, through his The Godfather, an insight into the mind of the socially enabled psychopath. Born in Corleone, a small village in Sicily, that troubled, deprived and violent part of Italy we have learnt to associate closely with the “mafia”, Vito Corleone earned his stripes as a young boy, learning to use the Sicilian gun “the Lupara” with finesse and precision. His flight from Sicily, early years in New York as a humble immigrant, barely managing to make ends meet, and struggling to provide for his young family during the great depression, and his eventual entry into the grey belly of the New York “underworld” after his shrewd murder of a local don, were brought to life most brilliantly by Puzo. Incredibly, the “Godfather” who emerged from these violent beginnings metamorphosed over time into “a reasonable man”, a fact the author takes pain to reiterate several times during the course of the complex tale.

The Mind of the PsychopathVito Corleone, the Godfather who emerged from these humble beginnings in Puzo’s novel and went on to occupy a pre-eminent position in the underworld, makes a fascinating case study, one of the finest descriptions of psychopathic personality in popular fiction. The prototypical psychopath has deficits or deviances in some core areas: interpersonal relationships, emotion, and self-control. Psychopaths gain satisfaction through antisocial (or socially deviant) behaviour, and do not experience shame, guilt, or remorse for their actions. A classic trait among psychopaths is the lack of a sense of guilt or remorse for any harm they may have caused others. Instead, the psychopath rationalises his behaviour, blames it on others, or denies it outright. Psychopaths also lack empathy towards others in general, resulting in tactlessness, insensitivity, and contemptuousness. All of this belies their tendency to make a good, likable first impression. Psychopaths have a superficial charm about them, enabled by a willingness to say anything without concern for accuracy or truth. Shallow affect also describes the psychopath’s tendency for genuine emotion to be short lived and egocentric with an overall cold demeanour. Their behaviour is impulsive and irresponsible, often failing to keep a job or defaulting on debts. Psychopaths also have a markedly distorted sense of the potential consequences of their actions, not only for others, but also for themselves. They do not, for example, recognise the inherent risk of being caught, disbelieved or injured as a result of their behaviour.Emotionally, the fundamental traits underlying this personality are an inability to empathise with others, to feel their emotions, to share their love, joy, pain and sorrow in a deep way. Indeed, the emotions that this personality experiences are distinctly shallow and poorly sustained. It is not that the psychopath does not feel emotions; he feels them so fleetingly and his being carried away by them is so transient (albeit intense) that those feelings fail to have any impact on how he perceives and reacts to the emotions of others. In other words, his emotional experience probably has little impact on his emotional learning and development as a human being.Research has shown that psychopaths have poor perception of the facial emotions others express, and experience difficulties in affect recognition (i.e. gauging the other person’s mood). They also seem to have difficulty in integrating contextual cues in their environment; their perception of an environmental cue is linked to how it relates to goal-relevant environmental information. Put simply, the psychopath fails to perceive environmental cues in the context they are and may thus react inappropriately. As a consequence, psychopathic personalities may fail to perceive fear in the object of their aggression; fail to recognise his abject submission; and therefore perhaps, fail to tailor their aggression to that which will merely provoke a desired response. In the process, their aggressive reactions may be far in excess of that needed to achieve their ends.Psychopaths also often do not sense right and wrong in conventional ways accepted by society: in other words, they often choose to operate from their own reality framework and do not necessarily fit within the moral and legal framework that we accept as a society. From Al Pacino to Veerappan, Real life examples of “Godfathers”, like Veerappan, have been (with few exceptions) intensely proud men, who are not afraid to write their own rule books; judge right and wrong in their unique ways; seldom appearing to feel, certainly not expressing remorse for their actions, however impactful, including the ending of human life, both of perceived opponents and of their own kith and kin. For example, Puzo’s godfather, in mourning the violent death of his favourite older son, focuses more on his (son’s) inability to control his impulses rather than on his own contribution to the sadness that has visited his family. Curiously, the Godfather’s wife, a devout Christian, is described as fervently praying for his (the Godfather’s) soul and presumably its salvation.

A Reasonable ManWhat is fascinating about Puzo’s Godfather is his quality of “reasonableness”, so important for a leader, yet so unusual for a psychopath. Indeed, Vito Corleone is almost statesmanlike in his responses. Highly moralistic in his personal values, he is portrayed as having very strong views about appropriate public behaviour, family honour and sexuality in particular, and is seen to frown on social inappropriateness of any kind. Indeed his second son’s fondness for company with the opposite sex becomes the major reason for the Godfather to summarily reject him, despite having lost his older son to the ravages of his profession. Particular about language and its usage, he reserves his strongest rebuke, “infamita”, to markedly inoffensive situations; even so, it conveys squarely to those around him his displeasure about a person, his statements or actions. That someone so moralistic does not see it amiss to eliminate a rival through murder in cold blood, or indeed coerce a recalcitrant and arrogant movie producer by decapitating his favourite, priceless race horse, leaving the (race horse’s) head in his bedroom for him to wake up beside, experiencing untold terror in the process, exemplifies for us the paradox the Godfather is. Strangely also, throughout the book, the Godfather stands out for his willingness to negotiate; “I will reason with them” is his favourite refrain when confronted with a difficult situation.

The Godfather ParadoxSo if Puzo’s Godfather is a psychopath, what manner of psychopathy does he represent? The primary quality of psychopathy that the Godfather possesses to a great extent appears to be the ability to be ruthless in achieving his own ends. A second psychopathic quality the Godfather exudes is a distorted reality of the impact of his actions; not quite consonant with traditional expectations or social beliefs, nor indeed particularly empathetic. A third, perhaps most striking psychopathic quality the Godfather possesses is his ability to manipulate people and situations rather skilfully. His dispensation of favours is usually with a caveat; that one day, at an appropriate time, the favours will have to be returned. Hesitation to accept or return the Godfather’s favour is viewed with open contempt, suspicion, even derision.There are, however, several differences. Quite contrary to the typical psychopathic personality, the Godfather’s is a slow to warm, even phlegmatic, temperament, and he does not exude a superficial charm. Nor does he lose control over his emotions at any point in time, whatever the provocation; indeed, he regards the inability to control one’s emotions as being an “animal” quality, unbecoming of a sensible human being. His is also a remarkably sensitive personality; quick to take offence and very perceptive of the moods, emotions and reactions of those around him. His ability to perceive social and emotional cues is highly developed, quite unlike the conventional psychopath who appears oblivious to these. Finally, his almost statesman-like willingness to reason makes him stand out from the conventional image we have of the psychopath as a society. Puzo’s Godfather does, therefore, present us with a paradox; cruel psychopath to some, beloved friend and protector to others; a unique combination of sense and sensibility on the one hand, balanced against latent potential for ruthless violence. Does he then represent the socially enabled psychopath?

Are effective leaders socially enabled psychopaths?While “goodness” and “greatness” within organisations is determined in large part by their in-built value systems, leaders often have potential to change value systems, goals, performance and outcomes both positively and negatively. In traditional professions and businesses, leadership is often either supervisory or strategic: the former focussing on getting the organisation (or a group within it) to perform effectively; the latter on managing change and uncertainty effectively, positioning the organisation for future growth. While many forms of leadership have been described, “inspirational leadership” has as its focus “the emotional connect” with people’s energies and goals, converting them into effective followers under all circumstances. This form is perhaps predominant in the leader who is a socially enabled psychopath.Effective leadership is often about helping people and organisations achieve the goals they have set for themselves. Engagement in such goal-oriented activity does call for a certain focus; where the goals set achieve primacy over other concerns, for example, those of the ethical or moral kind. In the competitive world of business, for example, the most effective leader is often perceived as the one who “delivers” whatever the means he employs. It is in this environment that the socially enabled psychopath with his unique perceptions of reality, willingness to shift societal norms and expectations to suit his agenda, and most importantly “willingness to reason with his fellow men” using a range of strategies from charming persuasion to latent threat, comes into his own. His “killer instinct”, lack of empathy and inability to experience and empathise excessively with the pathos of his fellow men consequent to his actions, serve him well here. His actions may hurt his fellow men, or be distasteful; but in the rough and tumble modern world we inhabit, the ability to achieve tangible and productive goals profitable to his organisation and to him, without twinges of conscience or feelings of regret, is often advantageous. The modern-day CEO is, therefore, in many cases, a socially enabled psychopath, effective leaders in business, science, technology, medicine, politics, and religion all exemplifying this “Godfather Paradox”.To label all effective leaders as “socially enabled psychopaths” would clearly be uncharitable to society at large and too much of a generalisation. However, empirical observation does highlight the predominance of aforementioned qualities in various permutations and combinations, among leaders in society, which is curious, to say the least. One may even argue that a certain amount of “social psychopathy” is necessary in order for leaders to succeed, as excessive empathy towards different stakeholders, lack of a personal reality orientation, and inability to “reason” can in many situations be detrimental to the larger cause one represents. Perhaps modern society would eventually deem acceptable a breed of leaders with such “benevolent positive psychopathic traits” without an iota of physical or emotional violence in them. Perhaps, we will as a society, one day, celebrate rather than vilify, “the Godfather Paradox”. Perhaps!

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Overcoming Autism with Growing Brain Lab

Disorders of brain and nervous system development are among the most disabling disorders that  affect young children and their families. These include several forms of mental   retardation and learning disability, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, autism, attention   deficit and hyperactivity disorder and a spectrum of motor, cognitive, behavioral and emotional   disorders including those due to family and school stress.

Autism is one of the most important disorders that affects young children. Autism is known as a ‘spectrum disorder,’ because the severity of symptoms ranges from a mild disabilities in learning, language development and social interactions to a severe impairment, with multiple problems and highly unusual behavior. The disorder may occur alone, or with accompanying problems such as mental retardation or seizures. Autism is not a rare disorder, being the third most common developmental disorder, more common than Down’s Syndrome. Typically, about 20 in a population of 10,000 people will be autistic or have autistic symptoms. 80% of those affected by autism are boys.

Children with Autism need the care and attention of a multi-disciplinary team, including the paediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist, physical, occupational and speech therapists,   psychologists with special training and interest in education and development,   special educators, social workers, speech therapists and nurses.  At present, there is no pharmacological therapy which can cure autism. The only consistently effective treatment for autism is a structured training program; therefore, a combination of a good school and parent training is the best known treatment. Autistic children can make significant progress if the intervention is appropriate and consistent.

Growing Brain Lab (GBL) is an innovative project at Neurokrish-Trimed.  Over a decade GBL has evolved as multidisciplinary model of assessment that addresses Learning,   Aptitude and Behaviour across motor, cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial   domains. GBL has also perfected in this timeframe a model of after-school   therapy incorporating behavioral management and Neurodevelopmental therapy.   With the advent of TRIMED and it’s integrative approach, GBL now incorporates seamlessly a range of holistic interventions targeting symptoms of various developmental disorders including Autism. Play Yoga, Mud Therapy, Reflexology, Ayurvedic Therapies all blend seamlessly into a whole in the TRIMED-GBL program. Inspired by excellence and Success Stories, GBL is today making accessible to families, modern healthcare with ancient wisdom, which is the TRIMED mantra.

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Quest for the Ideal Healthcare Model

Most developed nations regard healthcare as a fundamental right and quality healthcare services as an essential pre-requisite of development. Arguably, the finest example of national health service provision is the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K. Developed by a Labour government in the post war years, the NHS soon became Britain’s answer to the global search for an ideal healthcare model. Its inherent simplicity, being a government managed, socially driven model of equitable healthcare provision, led to its achieving “cult status” among healthcare professionals worldwide, and to its becoming an enduring symbol of British pride and sentiment. Indeed, many countries around the world, especially those in the commonwealth, replicated it unquestioningly, developing extensive links with it, for training and skills development.Why then has the NHS model experienced significant change over time? The answer perhaps lies in its inherent un-sustainability; the government being wholly responsible for the costs of healthcare delivery, the consumer having to share only an insignificant part of the direct costs incurred, whatever his station in life. Not only did this make healthcare provision very expensive for the State, it resulted in inappropriate health service utilisation. The devolution of health service provision to local health authorities, in an attempt to “cap” costs, led to the NHS being increasing managed by professionals, many from non-healthcare domains, as also increasing disenchantment and attrition among key stakeholders; doctors, nurses and other senior healthcare professionals.

India can learn much: As the NHS in the U.K. strives to reinvent itself, we in India can learn much from its remarkable evolution, rise and perceptual decline. While government delivered models of healthcare guarantee social equity, governments in general perform poorly in the service sector, airlines and hospitality being classic examples in the Indian context. Evaluated objectively, the argument that government supported healthcare initiatives should be exclusively carried through public investment, in public healthcare agencies, is backed neither by logic nor by experience. Healthcare delivery, unlike health policy development, is not an area of governmental “core competency.” A measured and rational approach that explores various healthcare delivery models, pilots chosen models judiciously, finally adopting those that have both relevance and viability, is called for.The unit costs of healthcare: Whatever the preferred healthcare model, we must accept that every healthcare intervention, from a consultation-interview-examination process, to the conduct of the most advanced investigations and procedures, has a “unit cost” appended to it, this being the cost incurred by the provider in delivering that intervention. The argument in healthcare must move from the conventional “should there be a unit cost?”, to the more contemporary, “who will pay the unit cost?” The responsibility for “unit cost payment” may rest entirely with the state, as for the person below poverty line, or one who is disabled or otherwise disadvantaged; partly the individual and partly the state as in those from lower income groups, the unemployed, public and NGO service employees and other selected populations; and entirely with the individual or other parties contracted on his behalf as in the higher income group individual or private sector employee with employer cover. Any healthcare model that disregards this “unit cost” that every healthcare intervention attracts, is doomed to fail, for sheer lack of sustainability or viability.There are many examples of “unit cost sharing” world-over, with responsibility for health related costs being vested in both the individual and the State depending both on the nature of the service sought and provided and on the concerned person’s socio-economic status. Many countries have also experimented with insurance managed participatory models of healthcare, with government taking responsibility for the insurance premium, wholly or in part, private providers contracted through the insurance company being responsible for healthcare provision, a model that is gaining increasing acceptance among various State governments in India. While insurance managed healthcare models are not without problems, as caricatured in the Michael Moore documentary “SICKO”, a critique of the American managed healthcare system, they are arguably both robust and sustainable, thereby meriting consideration. Expanding these models to include premium contributions from government, employer and individual in varying proportions is another possibility.It is important we acknowledge here that the majority of non-government healthcare services including health insurance are “for profit” enterprises, accountable to stakeholders and cannot on their own accord guarantee equity of care. Private providers also tend to marginalise those they perceive as “bad clients”, people with chronic diseases, pre-existing medical conditions and those who cannot contribute to healthcare payments on regular basis. However, social responsibility dictates that all healthcare service providers participate in delivering healthcare to the have-nots in society and this is possible today in the context of government-driven health insurance schemes that cover families below the poverty line (BPL) for emergency and specialist treatments. Other participatory healthcare models include the contracting out select healthcare services to private providers and State support for charitable hospitals and NGO agencies through grants for subsidised healthcare delivery. Senior government officials point out that such government-private engagement in healthcare through contractual arrangements, are by no means new, and have existed for decades.Making PPP models of healthcare operational: Can government engagement with the organised healthcare sector be operationalised more systematically nationwide, so that no PHC anywhere in the country suffers due to lack of staff or services? Can private and NGO providers step in to formally cover for the government in regions that lack healthcare provision; tribal areas and hill regions for example? To take the argument a step further, can we not envisage a time when one could walk into any registered healthcare provider (private, NGO or public) and expect a proportional healthcare cost subsidy based on one’s ability to pay? Will this not guarantee “fair price healthcare” and thus greater health equity? These and many other questions beg answers in the contemporary global context.The “H1N1 Swine Flu” epidemic has once again highlighted, like the HIV experience before it, the need for close and effective cooperation among the government, private and NGO-run healthcare service providers. The government reached out spontaneously to the private healthcare industry, engaging it in the national effort to fight the H1N1 epidemic. It seems eminently possible that such cooperation can extend far beyond the scenario of national healthcare emergencies, to include standard healthcare provision, primary, secondary and tertiary, especially at a time when we are contemplating “unique identification” for all Indian citizens. Even those sceptical of PPP (public-private participation) healthcare models will acknowledge that the private and NGO sectors have developed in the six decades after independence, impressive core competency in healthcare provision, often overshadowing the government sector with all its abilities of scope and scale, ophthalmological (eye) care being a good example.

Sense of urgency needed : PPP engagement in healthcare must therefore be approached in the spirit of greater common good, combining high standards of quality and efficiency with accountability, equity and transparency. PPP engagement must develop through a national healthcare blueprint, amalgamating government, private and NGO sectors in tripartite arrangements for healthcare provision, with the participation of all stakeholders, patient groups and healthcare professionals included. We must also engender the political will to legislate alongside for a “national healthcare guarantee” covering all Indian citizens. Health being a crucial indicator of human development, our failure to act with a sense of urgency, will only lead to further widening of the gulf between economic and human development indices in India.

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From Elusive Cure to Enabling Comfort

We must consider quality of life and wellness as treatment outcomes and ask ourselves whether the treatment we opt for will help us achieve these outcomes.

Quality of life is a relatively novel concept that dominates both medical science and health policy today and is widely accepted as the best indicator of outcome of treatment. The focus among practitioners of modern medicine, and indeed, in social consciousness, however, remains firmly on the elusive concept of “cure.” The adage among medical practitioners of yore: “to cure sometimes, control often; but comfort always,” hints at the importance of life quality, one that is forgotten, however, in the quest for miracle cures.That the majority of chronic conditions defy cure is something doctors know, but often choose to be agnostic of. Thus apart from infections, inflammations, metabolic disturbances and transient visitations of their ilk, that respond well to drugs designed to terminate them; and indeed abnormalities of structure (organs that have lost structural integrity) that are amenable to surgical intervention, the vast majority of medical conditions while potentially controllable, are not curable. Diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, ischaemic heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, dementia and a host of other conditions while “treatable” and/or “modifiable” (relief from clinical symptoms and attendant complications) are not “curable.” The promise of a “cure” for many chronic diseases thus remains wishful; that rainbow with its elusive pot of gold, at the end of the dark, illness cloud.There is no doubt we are living longer as a society, and this longevity is attributable, in great part, to advances in modern medicine; cardiac bypass procedures, joint replacements, organ transplants and such like. There is ample evidence to support our collective social longevity, the average Indian lifespan having increased by over a third, since the time of independence, the increase being greater in “advanced” societies like Japan. However, whether such longevity leads automatically to enhanced quality of life remains a conjecture. For example, the follow-up data after a cardiac bypass surgery, arguably the best known lifespan enhancing procedure, shows in many studies high rates of depression and cognitive dysfunction (memory and higher order brain function problems) 5-10 years after the procedure. It would be fallacious to blame the bypass procedure for these complications in the brain and mind; after all, had the person with ischaemic heart disease lived long enough, without the procedure, he might have developed these anyway. However, in evaluating the overall “success” of such procedures or advocating their widespread application through policy implementation, these factors must be considered carefully. In this instance, the question that begs our attention is: “while the procedure enhances lifespan, does it enhance the quality of life?” And if it does not for a select group, who constitutes the group? Why not for it? When does it enhance the quality of life, and when doesn’t it? What determines the outcome in a given individual? Where and how is this outcome determined? These questions need clear answers and we do not always have them.It is striking how both modern medicine and society are obsessed with the concept of “cure,” the quest for magic pills (or, indeed, magic procedures) that will help achieve the longevity goal, being never ending. The energy, enterprise and expense invested in this quest, by affected individuals, their families, and governments are, unfortunately, not always rewarded with a good quality of life after the procedure. Our obsession with “cure” probably comes from two very different directions. The first is idealistic; the tantalising possibility that we will, through advancements in science and technology, “fix” the vast majority of problems concerning the human body. When mankind has learnt to fly, build tunnels through mountains and under the sea, and transport itself into space at will, this aspiration of curing chronic diseases and enhancing longevity does not really seem that distant a frontier.The second, however, probably has more sinister origins that merit careful consideration. The business of curative medicine is enormously lucrative and demands the constant creation of markets that will utilise the goods and services it develops. What could interest the human race more than the possibility of a cure for illness and life-enhancement (with or without quality)? A degree of scepticism of novel, potentially curative treatments is, therefore, warranted in the modern social context, and we must examine carefully whether the promise of “a magic cure” for any chronic condition guarantees alongside an improvement in the quality of life. Thus, while we share a collective belief that people not only live longer due to advances in medical science but also live well, the presumption of a better quality of life, is sadly, in many instances, just that — a presumption!Scientifically viewed, the proof that many modern medical treatments enhance the life quality remains tenuous, to say the least. At a recent lecture in VHS, Chennai, Shah Ebrahim, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Chair of the South Asian Chronic Diseases Network, a renowned international expert on chronic disease epidemiology, rued our societal predilection for magic bullets (The Hindu, January 9, 2010). Talking about the “polypill” — a combination of aspirin (blood thinner), a Statin (to lower cholesterol levels), and antihypertensive agents (to lower blood pressure) — that is intended to enhance cardiovascular health, he pointed out that simple health promotion measures such as changing over to rock salt from processed salt (high in sodium) and using soya oil as opposed to palm oil (which strangely attracts a lower tax probably due to anomalies in trade policy) were just as likely to improve cardiovascular health. These are far cheaper for governments to implement, and relevant to developing nations.Prescribing the widespread use of the polypill for the middle-aged, as opposed to implementing these simple public health interventions through changes in policy, both health and trade, will be deleterious in many ways, he opined. It will be costly to the nation and poorly sustainable, will have low penetration in society and perhaps, most importantly, take away the responsibility for our health from us, placing it firmly in the hands of the pharmaceutical industry. Further, the former approach, of making people assume responsibility for their lifestyle and diet, alongside the implementation of a complementary government lead policy, is far more likely to enhance other desirable health behaviours in society and, indeed, global health outcomes.Why do we then as a society look to the “polypill” with such enthusiasm or consider it with such seriousness? The answer probably lies in our preference for “cure” as opposed to comfort and life quality. Happily for us, improved quality of life and “wellness,” a concept that has traditionally dominated eastern thought and traditional medical systems, is today receiving much global attention. Wellness encompasses both physical and mental well-being, the latter being a dynamic state of optimal functioning referring to the individual’s ability to develop his or her potential, work productively, build strong and positive relationships with others and contribute to the community. We must recognise that the prevention and management of diabetes extend far beyond the popular notion of blood sugar control; that cardiac health cannot be achieved merely by unblocking blood vessels and enhancing circulation through a stent or bypass; and indeed that the drugs for dementia available today do not even guarantee slowing of disease progression, let alone cure or reversal.Given this scenario, we as a nation and society must consider quality of life and wellness as treatment outcomes, quite seriously, and ask ourselves whether the treatments we are considering, however technologically advanced and seductive, will likely help us achieve these outcomes. We would also do well to examine closely the role of traditional and indigenous medical systems that have for centuries retained this focus on wellness and life quality through health promotion, prevention of illness, care and comfort for those affected with chronic illness; not merely curative treatments.

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The Mind in Modern Medicine

The view that it is not enough to heal the body of the affected person, that we must also heal the mind, is gaining credence.It is curious that the mind, so important at the turn of the 20th century, is experiencing today a reawakening in scientific and societal consciousness. The founders of modern medical science in the 18th and 19th centuries had clearly conceived the mind to be a representation of the brain; people like Alois Alzheimer demonstrated pathological abnormalities in the brain of people affected with dementia. Indeed, centuries earlier, the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, had firmly placed “our joys, sorrows, desires and feelings” in the brain.Sigmund Freud, who started his career as a neurologist, developed an interest in the mind while a student of the legendary neurologist Charcot in Paris. Charcot was deeply interested in hysteria, that condition where physical symptoms like fainting, seizures and paralysis are expressed due to an abnormal emotional state, rather than an abnormal physical state. Many aspiring neurologists of the time including Freud were attracted to Paris by Charcot’s knowledge and erudition.Sigmund Freud, however, branched off from Charcot to develop his own hypothesis of the human mind, in what famously became the school of psychoanalysis. Freud took the exploration of the mind in hysterical states deeper, into areas that few physicians before him had dared to tread. His theory of “consciousness” attempted to explain the role of deep-rooted emotional conflicts originating in early life, in developing symptoms of the mind later on. Freudian thought is complex, requiring many hours of concerted study. In a nutshell, Freud proposed that the human tendency was to repress anxiety provoking emotional conflicts that the conscious mind could not possibly contemplate. While these thoughts were confined to the unconscious mind, there were, inevitably, times when they emerged into the conscious, and given their unacceptable nature manifested (were converted into) a physical symptom, instead. Freudian thought spawned a school of psychoanalysis which dominated the practice of “psychological medicine” for over a century. However, his all-pervasive view of sexual underpinnings for all manner of emotional conflict, for example the Oedipus complex where the mother is the inappropriate object of sexual attention of the male child, was not accepted in its totality by his contemporaries.Two milestones in the latter half of the twentieth century brought the mind firmly back into the realm of brain science. The first, the discovery of the neuroleptic drug chlorpromazine that could control effectively the symptoms of serious mental illness like schizophrenia, followed on by a range of psychotropic drugs with potential to address a range of other emotional symptoms, provided indirect evidence that the brain had a role in the development and manifestation of human emotions. The second, the development of several dynamic brain-imaging tools in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, has transformed our understanding of the human brain and mind, permitting us to visualise live, brain activity during a psychological task.CrossroadsThe brain and mind interface is therefore at an interesting crossroads in modern medicine. There is a growing understanding in medical science of the role our brains play in determining what are predominantly emotional symptoms. Research, for example, has shown that people with psychopathic personalities, hitherto considered to suffer from a disorder of the mind, have a poor perception of others’ facial emotions, and experience difficulties in affect recognition (that is, gauging the other person’s mood). These abnormalities in perception have been linked to abnormalities in brain function, the amygdala, part of the emotional brain, being implicated in many instances. Clearly, as our ability to image the mind expands, so will our understanding of brain-mind relationships and knowledge of “how the mind works!”From a social and health policy perspective, the mind has assumed considerable importance. In a seminal paper, “The Mental Wealth of Nations,” published in Nature (Volume 455; October 23, 2008), Beddington and colleagues emphasise that countries must learn to capitalise on their citizens’ cognitive resources if they are to prosper, both economically and socially, and that early interventions for emotional health and cognition will be the key to prosperity. Reporting the Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing commissioned by the U.K. Government Office for Science, they introduce two important concepts. Mental capital encompasses both cognitive and emotional resources. It includes people’s cognitive ability; their flexibility and efficiency at learning; and their emotional intelligence, or social skills and resilience in the face of stress. Mental well-being, on the other hand, refers to individuals’ ability to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others and contribute to their community. The importance of detecting mental disorders early, the role of science, for example neural markers for childhood learning disability; the development of early interventions that enhance mental capital and mental well-being, boosting brain power through the lifespan; and encouragement for processes that will help people adapt well to the changing needs of the workplace, as also engage in life-long learning, are highlighted here.From a clinical practice perspective, the importance of mental health, wellness and health-related quality of life as outcome indicators of both physical and mental disorders is becoming widely accepted. The view is that it is not enough to heal the body of a person affected with physical disease; it is also crucial that we heal the mind, enhancing wellness, is gaining credence in modern medicine, quality of life having become established as the best outcome of treatment. Indeed, the reintegration of people into society as they recover from illness requires as an imperative the restoration of both their mental capital and mental well-being.Pray, what is the status of hysteria, that original symptom of the mind, in this era of modern medicine, you may well ask. It is noteworthy that a whole range of bodily symptoms that have no physical basis — tension headache and chronic fatigue, atypical facial pain, atypical chest pain, irritable bowels and bladder, fibromyalgia, burning in the private parts, to name just a few — all have their putative origins in the theory of hysterical conversion. It is estimated that between 20 per cent and 35 per cent of all primary care consultations and about a fifth of all emergency room visits are for physical symptoms such as these, that do not have a physical basis. They are also responsible for the loss of many patient and caregiver workdays; untold suffering and burdensome expense, both personal and social; and unnecessary investigations in pursuit of that elusive diagnosis.Physicians who frequently encounter these symptoms have learnt to spot the telltale signs that are their forerunner: multiple consultations (doctor shopping); the large bag filled with a variety of investigation reports that have mysteriously failed to identify “anything wrong”; the constant need for reassurance, combined curiously with disbelief in the doctor’s opinion, notwithstanding his erudition; the development of new symptoms, without any apparent physical basis, soon after old ones disappear; disenchantment with the medical profession for failing to diagnose, sometimes even subtle pride in being “such a difficult diagnostic dilemma”; as indeed the failure of any serious setback to manifest itself despite months, sometimes years, of ongoing symptoms… the list of diagnostic clues is endless.The French physician Briquet described this syndrome which for many years carried his name. In modern medicine this ailment goes by the name “Somatisation Disorder.” And in the clinic setting, in an era of advancing diagnostic technology, it has become the most common manifestation of hysteria. Indeed, somatisation, thought to be more common in non-western cultures with traditionally limited verbal expression of emotions, is almost becoming fashionable, akin to “swooning” (another hysterical symptom) in the Victorian era.Hysteria does therefore exemplify the importance of the mind in modern medicine. It may well have origins in the brain, which future research may reveal: it clearly is a significant public health problem that does affect mental capital and well-being; it does pose a tremendous drain on the public exchequer and private resources; it has potential for cure through early diagnosis and intervention; and interestingly, may well be the last frontier to traverse at the interface between the brain and mind.

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Population Ageing: An Area of Darkness

It is a challenge for policymakers, care providers and society as a whole.

Population ageing has emerged as the grand challenge of this century; for policymakers, care providers and society as a whole. A review of India’s population census is insightful. In 1961, the population of the elderly was placed at 24 million; it increased exponentially to 43 million in 1981; 57 million in 1991; and about 77 million in 2001. The proportion of the elderly in the total population also rose from 5.63 per cent in 1961 to 6.58 per cent in 1991 and to 7.5 per cent in 2001. India has thus joined the rank of “Greying nations” with over seven per cent of its population in the 60-plus years segment. A United Nations report has predicted that India will have 198 million ‘Old’ (60+) people in 2030 and 326 million in 2050. Currently, there could be around 100 million ‘senior citizens’ in India.

The ProblemsStudies have shown that elderly people in India suffer a double-whammy effect; the combined burden of both communicable (usually infectious) and non-communicable (usually chronic and lifestyle related) diseases. This is compounded by an impairment of special sensory functions like vision and hearing that decline with advancing age. Thus, elders have a considerable burden of both infectious diseases like tuberculosis and chronic illnesses such as diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, and cancer. Indeed, a survey of elder health in Kerala showed that over a third of all elders suffer from chronic diseases and have a medical consultation or admission necessitated by illness in each year. Notably, the majority prefer to use private health-care services, even though they are more expensive, service quality being an important reason for such a preference.It is also clear that disability and frailty accompany aging, especially after the seventh decade. Thus 25-27 per cent of Indian elders have visual impairment; 12-14 per cent are hearing deficit; eight pre cent are immobile and confined to home or bed, this figure rising to 27 per cent after 80 years, women being more vulnerable. Falls are a common problem causing disability; with over half of all the elderly in some studies having suffered a fall with or without serious injuries like fractures and dislocations. While aging is not synonymous with disability, a large proportion of the Indian aged population is disabled, the severity of disablement increasing with age: 36 per cent in the young-old (60-64); 42 per cent in the middle-old (65-69); 51 per cent in the older-old (70-74) and 61 per cent in the oldest old (75 and above).

No safety NetThe absence of a safety net for the elderly has exacerbated the problem. Traditionally, the joint family in India took care of its elderly. These traditional care arrangements have been lost in the context of rapid urbanisation and an exodus of people from rural to urban areas and from urban areas to foreign countries. In the absence of such community support in the form of kinsmen or the extended family, and an inability to continue to earn their living, the elderly are often rendered destitute, if not financially, from a pragmatic perspective. While these problems plague most traditional societies that are in transition, their rapidly enlarging scope and scale, demand and necessitate an urgent response from our policy makers.The Government India, supported actively by civil society, unveiled its National Policy on Older Persons (NPOP) over 50 years after Independence. A comprehensive document covering every aspect of the elder’s life, ambitious, with a clear cut action plan, it proposed a role for the State in the elder care: health, shelter, financial security and protection against abuse. It recognised the need for affirmative action favouring the elderly, viewing them as national resources, creating opportunities for their development. Training, empowerment and partnership with elderly were seen as important in providing equality and dignity to all groups of elderly. Unfortunately, a decade later, the NPOP awaits complete implementation in all States and Union Territories of India, much of its promise remaining unfulfilled, prompting the Government of India to seek its revision to suit contemporary needs.Discussions among civil society groups and concerned senior citizens in the run up to a re-organised NPOP, reveal many consensus points for the future organisation of elder health care. There is little doubt that the care of the elder must remain vested within the family unit and based within the community the elder resides in. Incentives for families that care for their elders are necessary; as are the development of community health-care resources; doctors, nurses and paramedics specialised in elder health care; and rehabilitation facilities for those with disability. The importance of Government and civil society partnerships needs to be underscored here; as is regulation of such elder health-care services for quality and cost. While the focus is often on in-patient (hospitalisation) care, there is a clear need to develop other models relevant to the elder: out-patient care, day care, palliative care, rehabilitation care, respite care and step down care. Developing community level health-care worker pools that will both screen the elderly for risk factors, disease and disability; and provide simple home based interventions is necessary; as is tiered access for the elderly to a range of professionals: from generalist to specialist doctors. Most importantly, perhaps, those working in this area feel the need for unitary, sustainable and replicable models of screening and assessment: health checks that would address apart from routine risk factors like hypertension and diabetes, areas of potential disability: vision, hearing, falls, bone and joint, respiratory and cardiac disability; and neurodegenerative disorders — strokes, Parkinson’s disease and that looming public health challenge; brain degeneration and dementia!

The five ‘A’ testA second area of concern for those engaged in this sector is that of healthcare costs. A survey in 2001 revealed that nearly two-thirds of elders live in rural areas; nearly half are women, out of whom over half are widows. Two-thirds of all elderly persons are illiterate and dependent on physical labour; 90 per cent existed in the unorganised sector with no regular source of income; one-third living below poverty line. In sum, the majority of Indian elders are in potentially vulnerable situations without adequate food, clothing, or shelter. Providing health care that passes the “Five ‘A’ Test” (Availability, Affordability, Accessibility, Acceptability and Accountability) to such a large vulnerable group, is a challenge that has to be confronted. Insurance cover that is elder-sensitive is virtually non-existent; insurance premiums increase in an unsustainable manner with age and there is rampant age-discrimination in the health insurance sector. Further, pre-existing illnesses are usually not covered, making insurance policies unviable for the elder. Indeed, senior citizens point out that they pay far more for health insurance than their utilisation justifies; and that elders end up subsidising the care of younger citizens, who form the bulk of health insurance consumers. Government sponsored comprehensive cover for those living below poverty line, and in elderly and destitute homes is necessary; as is family based insurance cover that addresses comprehensively, the unique health care needs of the elder.Most importantly, perhaps, is the need for sensitivity and sensibility in making these plans. The elder citizen is a national treasure; one who has contributed to both national growth and familial development. As they approach the autumn of their lives, they experience diminishing ability to generate income, increasing vulnerability to illness and disability, and increasing dependency on their families and communities. Rather than view this dependence as a burden to be endured, we must as a society embrace it whole-heartedly, as a pay back opportunity; to thank senior citizens for their many unconditional contributions. The organisation and delivery of elder health care must therefore be approached with enthusiasm, altruism and generosity. Mature health policy for the elder combined with a generous dose of pragmatism in organising, delivering and funding health care services is the need of the hour.

World Alzheimer’s Day has just passed — September 21, 2010, and we should be reminded about the challenge of population ageing; the looming burden of elder disability; and the need for a comprehensive and pragmatic National Policy for Older Persons.Acknowledgements: Mr. K.R. Gangadharan (Chair), Prof. Indira Jaiprakash (Member), and other members of the sub-committee on Healthcare of the NPOP for their inputs.

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Dementia: A Looming Threat

Photo Credit: The Hindu: N Sridharan

A low level of awareness about dementia is most often why diagnosis is delayed and public health consciousness remains poor.World Alzheimer’s Day (September 21) was marked this year, in India, by the release of a comprehensive Dementia India Report. Prepared by national experts, converging under the Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI) umbrella, it estimates that there are 3.7 million elderly currently living with dementia in India, each spending Rs. 43,000 per annum on medical care. Dementia mainly affects older people, although about two per cent of cases start before the age of 65 years. After this, the prevalence doubles every five years with over a third of all people aged 90+ years being affected. With the exponential increase in the population of the elderly (60+ years) in India, an estimated 100 million today, expected to rise 198 million in 2030 and 326 million in 2050, dementia poses a looming public health challenge, the enormity of which cannot be underscored. The report thus addresses a felt need among professionals, policy makers, dementia sufferers and their families.

What it is ?Dementia is a neuropsychiatric disorder in which memory and other cognitive functions like thought, comprehension, language, arithmetic, judgment and insight deteriorate progressively. While it increases in prevalence with advancing age, it is not a normal feature of ageing, a common misconception. Further, dementia is a clinical syndrome, one with many underlying causes, some potentially treatable. Of the many conditions that cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) associated with neuro-chemical decline and waste product accumulation in the brain; vascular dementia (VaD) associated with strokes; dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), a condition associated with Parkinson’s disease; and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), are most common. The treatable conditions that cause dementia include infections such as syphilis, HIV and tuberculosis; hypothyroidism and other endocrinal problems; vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiency; toxic conditions of various kinds and so on. As they are potentially reversible they need to be addressed swiftly.

What the report highlights ?The report highlights two areas of great import for dementia sufferers and their families: activities of daily living (ADL) an important measure of the human condition, and behavioural and psychological symptoms associated with dementia (BPSD), an important predictor of health related quality of life (HRQoL). Problem behaviours in dementia include agitation, aggression, calling out repeatedly, sleep disturbance, wandering and apathy. Common psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, delusions and hallucinations. BPSD occur most commonly in the middle stage of dementia and are an important cause of caregiver strain. They appear to be just as common in low and middle income countries as in developed ones.The report outlines the current evidence based pharmacological treatments for dementia, especially AD and VaD: cholinesterase inhibitors (donepezil, rivastigmine, galantamine); NMDA agonists (memantine); drugs for BPSD (SSRI’s for depression and anxiety; new antipsychotics for psychotic symptoms like agitation, aggression, hallucinations; antiepileptic drugs that serve as mood stabilising agents); addressing also their cost-benefit in low-middle income countries. It also lays stress on the importance of structured caregiver interventions as part of standard treatment including psycho-educational interventions for dementia; psychological therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy, cognitive retraining and family and caregiver counselling; as also caregiver support and respite care. Highlighting that caregiver interventions have been conclusively shown to delay institutionalisation of the person with dementia in the developed world; it observes that many new treatments in advanced stages of research hold promise for persons with dementia and their families.The report differentiates risk factors into those that are non-modifiable (genetic factors for example) and those that are potentially modifiable. It highlights the extensive and evolving medical literature on the role of lifestyle diseases: diabetes and insulin resistance; high cholesterol levels; high blood pressure; increased fat intake and obesity; together the so-called metabolic syndrome as a modifiable risk factor for dementia. It is important that policy makers recognise these factors as targets for both primary (early) and secondary (after the onset) risk factor prevention. It points to the low level of awareness about dementia as an important reason why diagnosis is delayed and public health consciousness remains poor. Worryingly, it observes that the lack of awareness extends to health professionals, formal training in dementia diagnosis and care not being a part of most medical, nursing and paramedical curricula; a matter of great concern needing immediate remediation. That stigmatisation of persons with dementia is rampant and that there is a need for raising awareness about the condition across segments of society is explicitly stated.

In India…Assuming incremental life expectancy and a stable incidence of dementia, the report attempts to estimate the future burden of dementia both nationally and State-wise. A twofold increase in dementia prevalence to 7.6 million by 2030 and a threefold increase to over 14 million by 2050 are thus estimated. Interestingly in the State-wise estimation, Delhi, Bihar and Jharkhand are all estimated to witness a 200 per cent or greater increment in dementia cases. These figures have of course been calculated based on certain assumptions. When one factors in the significant disability that dementia confers on the affected person, estimated as being greater than any other health condition except severe developmental disability, the impact of this exponential rise in prevalence, even put mildly, is staggering. The report addresses the need for services to be developed: memory clinics, day care, residential care, support groups and helplines, pointing out the paucity that currently exists. Also highlighted is the severe paucity of human resources for dementia care. A number of short-term and long-term focus goals, to improve resources; as well as scope, scale and quality of care are proposed.The report concludes with several key recommendations. The most important of these are:

  • Make dementia a national priority
  • Increase funding for dementia research
  • Increase awareness about dementia
  • Improve dementia identification and care skills
  • Develop community support mechanisms
  • Guarantee caregiver support packages
  • Develop comprehensive dementia care models
  • Develop new national policies and legislation for people with dementia

While these recommendations do address the need for dementia to be integrated into the National Policy for Older Persons (NPOP), they predominantly highlight the specific needs of dementia as a disabling and common condition among the elderly; one that can and will challenge Indian public health systems. However, the report acknowledges that dementia must be viewed in the context of other elder health problems, and within the framework of the NPOP.

Sets a gold-standardPerhaps the greatest contribution of this Dementia India Report is in its setting a gold-standard for other disorders of ageing: quantifying the prevalence and burden of the condition; its impact on the sufferer, caregiver and society as a whole; the framework of services required in order to give succour and solace to sufferers and their families; the causes, risk factors, treatments and management models; and the State-wise national impact. One fervently hopes that it will facilitate a powerful and futuristic policy response from the powers that be. In a country where the average age of the parliamentarian clearly falls in the “elder” category, one can only hope that it will be welcomed and adopted with the enthusiasm it richly deserves.Acknowledgements: Dr. K Jacob Roy, National Chairman of Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI) for permission to present this summary of the report and the use of figures.

Facts: 

  • There are 3.7 million elderly currently living with dementia in India, each spending Rs. 43,000 per annum on medical care
  • A twofold increase in dementia prevalence to 7.6 million by 2030 and a threefold increase to over 14 million by 2050 are thus estimated
  • Many new treatments in advanced stages of research hold promise for persons with dementia and their families

With the exponential increase in the population of the elderly in India, the disorder poses a challenge to public health systems.

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Perspectives in Dementia Care and Health Policy

A health policy for dementia should be comprehensive, especially spelling out the role of family, community and government.A brainstorming session on future perspectives in dementia care and health policy, at the National Dementia Summit held recently in New Delhi, is most insightful. The key prompts for this interactive session are simple and follow a 5W1H management model — who, what, why, when, where and how, in Rudyard Kipling’s “six friendly men” mould. We begin by asking who should take part in developing public policy. The large number of stakeholders becomes apparent: apart from Government, civil society agencies, medical, nursing, paramedical and other professionals, university faculty and researchers and those engaged in the care of dementia; the person affected (if able), their caregivers and families, clearly should all have a say in health policy development. Other stakeholders include the insurance sector, private care providers and agencies rendering dementia related services — pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, medical instrumentation industries; hospitals, hospices and homes. There is unanimity on whom health policy should target; everyone affected by the condition regardless of their economic or social

Photo Credit: The Hindu : N. Sridharan

circumstances.Prevention of Risk FactorsWhen should dementia health policy become operational (at what point of time in the lifespan) we ask. The discussion among experts is animated. They point out that primary prevention i.e. the prevention of risk factors that increase the likelihood of dementia development: hypertension, obesity, high lipid factor levels and diabetes; smoking and alcohol consumption; should begin young, perhaps even in teenaged years. These being the risk factors for many chronic and lifestyle diseases, the benefits of such primary prevention will undoubtedly go far beyond dementia, to a host of other chronic and lifestyle diseases. Secondary prevention, the optimal management of risk factors once they have developed, usually begins in middle age, when risk factors surface and are first detected in individuals. Tertiary prevention, early diagnosis of dementia, even in the mild cognitive impairment stage, often mistaken to be part of normal ageing; the early treatment with drugs that can slow down the disease; and supportive interventions for the caregiver, is universally believed to be mandatory. The group is unanimous that the time for a well defined national health policy is now, when there are an estimated 100 million elders in India, 3.7 million of whom are believed to have dementia.Participants believe that a health policy for dementia should be comprehensive and cover standards for diagnosis, treatment, clinical management; spelling out clearly the role of the family, community and government. Aside from this, dementia requires considerable care, which goes far beyond cure: rehabilitation care, respite care and palliative care, all of which must be clearly outlined. Dementia is a condition with many ethical, legal and financial implications that need to be addressed; and is also the focus of much research. Participants feel strongly that such health policy development should be inclusive and bottom-up, assimilating inclusively the views of all stakeholders; not top-down, based on the views of a minority who have access to the corridors of power. International delegates point out that there is evidence today that the bottom up approach to policy making is far more likely to work that the top down one. In this context participants express their regret that much of health policy development in India remains top down, with stakeholders being seldom consulted.Discussing the focus of a health policy, there is general agreement that all essential domains of dementia care need to be addressed: thus the person, family especially the principal caregiver and community health resources all need importance. However, given dementia’s inherent nature, a disabling condition with complex medical and social needs, secondary care, even tertiary care, cannot be avoided at times of diagnosis; for management, both drugs and non-drug therapies; and complications. At the same time rehabilitation care, both in-patient and out-patient, needs emphasis. When asked to choose between these different domains of care, putting focus on one, participating experts and stakeholders are unanimous; the person, his family and the community resources they can leverage upon are a paramount focus of health policy development.We proceed to ask “who should do what?” for the person with dementia. Interestingly, the need for co-operation and partnership between government, civil society, private providers and affected families becomes immediately apparent. The government clearly has to lead on making dementia a national priority, guaranteeing support for the caregiver and developing new dementia policy and legislation, all of which need immediate and timely action. On the other hand civil society support groups and care providers clearly have their work cut out for them taking ownership for tasks like increasing awareness in the community, improving dementia identification and care skills, and developing community support systems. The development of comprehensive care-giving models will require the involvement of experts: universities and tertiary facilities, working in tandem with affected families. Research is seen as one area where all parties need to take part. The government must increase funding for dementia research; pharmaceutical agencies and industry must contribute their mite; as must universities and other academic agencies; civil society supporting and enhancing the process; families participating with enthusiasm and altruism.The development of dementia health policy, as it has unfolded here, is by no means unique to that condition. The majority of chronic diseases, a rising burden in India today, will require a similar approach: paradigms that address long term care (when cure is not an option); participation and co-operation among a range of agencies, often as different from one another as chalk is from cheese; and inclusive, bottom up health policy development. While a nodal national agency charged with this responsibility will probably be part of the answer, this discussion on dementia brings to the fore, an urgent felt need in this country, for health policy paradigms that will address the emerging epidemic of chronic and lifestyle diseases. Isn’t it time our policy makers and Kipling’s six friendly men, met?